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November 9, 2018

 

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, I gave a sermon about the word טוב tov – goodness. The main thesis of the sermon is that goodness is hidden in every moment, light is hidden in the darkness. It is our job to find and reveal that goodness every day. I offered my blessing that whatever trouble comes our way, we have the courage and resilience to seek out the light and goodness. None of us anticipated what was waiting for us around the corner. None of us thought American Jews would be shot dead in shul on a Shabbat morning in Pittsburgh. But I still believe everything I said on Rosh Hashanah.

Last Shabbat, synagogues around the world were packed to the rafters and it was “standing room only” for Solidarity Shabbat. This would have been enough, in and of itself, to show us that we have the courage and resilience to face down hatred and violence. But what we were not expecting was to see so many members of the Christian and Muslim communities come out to support us. At Holy Blossom temple here in Toronto, three-hundred Muslims came out and formed a ring of protection around the synagogue. This gesture sent a very powerful message that love is stronger than hate.

Sometimes it takes a major tragedy in order to arouse human compassion. It seems, at this moment at least, that the world has awoken to the fact that anti-Semitism has arisen again (it never went away) and is still a very serious problem. Psalm 92, the Psalm for Shabbat, says A fool does not know, and the ignorant person does not understand…When the wicked flourish like grass and evil sprouts up, it is only so that it will be utterly destroyed. Sometimes problems have to get worse before they get better. The culture of hatred and violence in the United States has been building up for years. What we are witnessing now, I pray, is the beginning of the end of that culture, the beginning of a time in which all of humanity sees the goodness and Divinity in one another.

Psalm 92 encourages us to take the long view of the troubles and evils we face in the world. This Psalm was selected by the Rabbinic masters as the Psalm of Shabbat because Shabbat is about transcending physical space and time. When you are in Shabbat-mode, you become aware of this long view; you can see with a clearer vision how the moments of evil are exactly that—moments. You can see that their rise to power is but a blip on the radar screen of time, how they fall almost as quickly as they rise, and how all things are enveloped by שלמה רבה Shlama Rabbah—the Great Peace, and how that Great Peace embraces all things.

The more we can shift our consciousness towards Shabbat consciousness, which transcends the bounds of time and space, and the more we are able to draw that consciousness into our daily lives, the closer we will bring ourselves and our world to that Great Peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

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November 3, 2018

 

Less than a week from the horrible events in Pittsburgh last Shabbat, our pain is still fresh. We are still learning details about the people who were murdered and dealing with a wide range of emotions: grief, sadness, outrage, and fear. The temptation is to fall into despair, but we must not give in to that temptation. Reb Nachman of Breslov—one of our brightest spiritual teachers of the last two centuries—taught that it is forbidden to despair. To contextualize, Reb Nachman lived in Ukraine in the early 19th century, a time of economic precarity and unspeakable antisemitic violence. Of his eight children, two girls died in infancy and two boys died before their second birthday. He had it rough, to say the least, and yet he taught vociferously of the obligation to find happiness and peace and to shun thoughts of despair.

The world is in great need of healers and teachers. In times of great darkness, we must be the light. We cannot let our torches go out, we need them to shine even brighter. There is a verse in Proverbs that says the human soul is G-d’s candle. This teaches that in order for G-d’s light to shine into the world, we must be open to receiving, reflecting and refracting that light. How do we do that? Another verse earlier in Proverbs says a Mitzvah is a candle, and the Torah is light. Thus, when we perform a mitzvah and engage in words of Torah, we are adding light to the world. To come to Shul, to give tzedakah, to study Torah in the so in the face of violence and hatred is a tremendous act of courage and resistance in and of itself. But it can’t stop there, we need to take Torah and mitzvot to the street and our public institutions: we need to standup against anti-Semitism and intolerance for the other in general. A few years ago, a man walked into a place of worship in Canada and gunned down more than twenty people, killing six of them. We must not see this as an attack on others; it was an attack on us. We need to tell the public, as well as our elected officials, our educators, and our business leaders, that we will not stand for bigotry. We need to show up at vigils and rallies not only for our own people, but for all people.

Do not let the events of the past week keep you down. Your energy, your wisdom and your light are needed. There simply isn’t time to despair; we have too much work in front of us. This Shabbat, UJA Federation is calling on all Jewish people to attend a Shabbat service in Solidarity with the victims. Please make every effort to be with us this Shabbat as we come together to pray, eat, and share space with one another. Especially if the events of last Shabbat have left you shaken up and upset, it will benefit you greatly to join us this Shabbat. In addition, if you need to speak in private my door is always open.

May the memories of the righteous always be for a blessing, and may G-d bless all of us to carry out the work of channeling the precious light of Torah into every corner of the Earth.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

October 27, 2018

 

This upcoming Shabbat is Parshat VaYera, in which G-d appears to Avraham while he is sitting at the entrance of his tent. So Avraham is standing in the presence of G-d, which the midrash understands as meaning that he was engaged in prayer. At this moment Avraham then sees three travelers passing along the way and he runs after them to greet them and to invite them to his home to eat and to rest. He breaks away from his private audience with the Creator of Reality in order to show these strangers his kindness and hospitality. From this, the midrash tells us, we learn that Hachnassat Orchim the welcoming of guests, takes precedence over prayer. 

One of the messages I taught on Rosh Hashanah is that when we are in relation with fellow human beings, we are seeing the face of G-d. These strangers who Avraham greets turn out to be messengers, angels of Hashem, who are actually on a mission to test Avraham. He obviously passed with flying colours. But we too are being tested every day. We all have our personal rituals, our preferences, our shtick. We don’t have to let go of it, but we must sometimes must suspend our own priorities in order to prioritize the vital mitzvah of welcoming new comers into our synagogue and into lives. For example, you may have your favourite seat in shul, but you have to be willing to give that up to accommodate a guest. To do so communicates our willingness to be in relation to that person and to welcome them.

There is another message here in Avraham’s actions: he ran after those travellers. He didn’t wait for them to come to him. This shows that welcoming guests is not a passive mitzvah, it requires us to take active initiative. How far out of our way are we wiling to go to make our community an open and welcoming space for guests. Are we willing to sing Adon Olam to a different tune, are we willing to give up an Aliyah to the Torah to someone else? That is the test that Hashem puts before us each and every day.

People and communities are like plants; when they have water they thrive, when they do not, they wilt. Our water is Torah; when we practice and embody the middot—the principles—which are exemplified by our ancestors and lauded by our Sages, we will blossom like the date palm, and will be strong as the cedar –Psalm 92.

Shabbat Shalom,

October 20, 2018

 

As I disseminate these weekly bits and pieces of my brain, you will now begin to see a wider variety of subjects. Some of them, as I stated previously, will be from Taryag Mitzvot, the 613 Commandments based on Sefer HaKhinukh, others will be about important Jewish scholars, and some will be about general subjects of knowledge.

One area which is in great need of disambiguation is the subject of Kabbalah, a term which has come to mean the study of Jewish mysticism in general. The word Kabbalah comes from the root קבל to receive. Generally, this term is used to refer to the whole Jewish tradition and practice which we have received from our ancestors. In recent centuries it has been applied somewhat exclusively to Jewish mysticism. David Sheinkin (z”l) author of Path of the Kabbalah suggests that this term denotes a meditative technique used to elicit prophetic, intuitive wisdom which we receive from higher worlds.

Jewish mysticism, according to traditional sources, began even before Abraham. Sefer Raziel purports itself to have been transmitted to Adam through angelic beings. Our purpose is not to evaluate the veracity of statements like these. The earliest known mystical texts which have been confirmed by academic sources are a series of documents which comprise the Maaseh Merkavah and Maaseh Bereshit, which outline meditative and magical techniques. During the Mishnaic and Talmudic period (100-600 CE) we get two important texts: the Hekhalot and Sefer Yetzirah, which are similar to the texts which precede them. During the Gaonic/Late Rabbinic age (600-800 CE), the only major innovations are the development of a complex angelology and the Ba’alei Shem individuals who would derive ‘synthetic names of G-d’ by manipulating scripture and other holy text. In the early Middle Ages (800-1300) we see the development of Abulafian Mysticism, which focuses on specific meditation techniques based on the Hebrew letters.

At the end of the 13th century (roughly 1290) the Sefer HaZohar, the Book of Radiance, is published. This is an extensive collection of mystically themed texts—gathered from numerous Spanish and French scholars—which model themselves after the Midrash and Talmud and speak in very cryptic, poetic and symbolic language. The publication of this book marks the formal beginning of what we can call Kabbalah.

In the 16th century, when the teachings of the Zohar were already well-known among Jewish mystics, there arose a scholar by the name of R. Isaac Luria. He, along with this teacher R. Moshe Cordovero, has been displaced by the Spanish Inquisition and ended up in Tzfat in Ottoman Palestine. Rav Luria expounded upon the meaning of the Zohar such that it became explicit and understandable to its readers. His
interpretations—Lurianic Kabbalah—influenced all of the work to come after.

Rabbinic authorities, fearing the dangers of Kabbalah, forced it underground where it remained for around two hundred years. Eventually, a young man, R. Isaac Eliezer (The Ba’al Shem Tov) rose to prominence in Ukraine, and founded modern Hasidism, a movement which liberated Judaism from what it claimed were the shackles of Talmudism and Orthodoxy.

My personal interest in Jewish mysticism arose because I already had a predilection for studying mysticism and spirituality of all cultures. I had grown up in a typical liberal synagogue which emphasized ethical values and Tikkun Olam which, important as they are, did not convey a feeling of spirituality. When I learned, as a teenager, that Judaism also possessed a rich mystical, spiritual tradition I was very intrigued and began a life-long journey of discovery which eventually led to my adoption of a much more strict observance of halakha.

One of our upcoming programs is on Jewish Meditation where you can discover first-hand a little bit of what Jewish mysticism is all about.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

 

October 13, 2018

 

Last week I introduced Rabbi A.Y. Kahan’s The Taryag Mitzvot which is based on the 16th century text Sefer HaChinukh. Some of you guessed correctly that the first commandment, the first mitzvah of the Torah was given not just to the Israelites, and not even strictly to humanity, but to all sentient life: be fruitful and multiply and fill up the Earth, פרו ורבו ומלאו את הארץ  from Genesis 1:28.

It is particularly interesting that this be classified as a mitzvah for several reasons. Firstly, the Torah does not say ויצו  “and G-d Commanded,” rather, it saysויברך   “and G-d Blessed”. This discrepancy was certainly seized upon by those who wished to differ with the Sefer HaKhinukh’s designation of the mitzvot, but this designation ultimately prevailed. A blessing can have a command embedded within it, after all. This changes how we view commandments as well as how we view blessings; the two are interconnected. 

I find it intriguing also that the commandment was given to all sentient beings: tiny fish and insects, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals, whereas humans are they only ones who could understand the words. This indicates that this mitzvah-blessing was given through non-verbal means. The ability, instinct, and drive to procreate is hardwired into every living organism. It’s in our DNA. Even humans, who could understand the words, did not have to be told. We are plenty interested in doing it without religious imperative. What this mitzvah does is turn the mundane, physical act of sexual reproduction into a form of worship. It also enshrines procreation with importance, such that no religious authority can come along and say we should remain celibate. G-d used the Torah to write our DNA, so in that way, the imperative to have children is built into us.

It is problematic, however, for us to apply this mitzvah to biological procreation exclusively. Many people may wish to have children but are unable to do for any number of reasons, be it their medical or general circumstances. Same-sex couples and others can adopt or use surrogacy, but this does not really solve our problem. The fact is some people, despite their willingness, will not manage, or perhaps do not even want to have children. The Rabbis were well aware of this problem. Many of them, devout and pious as they were did not have children of their own. It was well-accepted many centuries ago that having students was a means by which one can fulfill the mitzvah of be fruitful and multiply. Through teaching others, we pass on our knowledge, and our wisdom. The transmission of Torah knowledge and wisdom is what makes having children an act of holiness for Jewish people. Thus, when you are able to do that without biological children, you have fulfilled the mitzvah. Transmitting our DNA, while necessary for life to endure, is no more holy than a male fish fertilizing millions of eggs on a riverbed. It can be done with no thought and no commitment to deal with the consequences. Being a guide or a mentor to another person is arguably an even better way to fulfil this mitzvah.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

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October 6, 2018

 

That’s it! The High Holidays are over. We gathered on Simchat Torah, unrolled a Torah scroll, danced and celebrated our three-thousand-year relationship with G-d which is conducted through the medium of this magnificent text.

But wait a minutedoesn’t Shavuot celebrate the Torah as well? The difference between Shavuot and Simchat Torah is simple. Whereas on Shavuot we celebrate our receiving Torah, on Simchat Torah, we celebrate something different: our study and engagement with Torah. This engagement happens through a number of means, including the weekly Torah and Haftarah readings and regular study. The more time you spent being עוסק בתורה -- occupied with Torah, the harder you danced on Simchat Torah.

In the spirit of renewing and restarting this Torah engagement, I will begin us on a journey which will expose us to a multiplicity of Jewish scholars and texts throughout the ages. The first such text we will encounter is Rabbi A.Y. Kahan’s The Taryag Mitzvot. Taryag (תרי"ג) is the Hebrew notation of the number 613. Rabbi Kahan’s book is a modern facsimile of Sefer HaKhinuch, which in the 16th century was credited to Rabbi Aaron HaLevi (1235-1290). Whether Rav Aaron actually wrote Sefer HaKhinuch or not, we will never know. This work was the first to systematize the 613 and list them specifically. This was not an easy task as there is dispute, for example, as to what constitutes a mitzvah unto itself and what is a required component of broader mitzvah. The number 613 was first promulgated by Rav Simlai in the Talmud (Menachot 23b).

Before I actually begin introducing these mitzvot amidst these weekly Spotlights, let me ask you: What do you think is the first mitzvah in the Torah?

Send me your guesses via email (rabbi@beitrayim.org). The first one to get it right wins a prize! (No Googling or other forms of cheating.) I encourage you to do this as an exercise: open a Chumash and look for what you think might be the first mitzvah.

Shabbat Shalom,

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September 29, 2018

 

 Shabbat Shalom, 

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September 22, 2018

 

Many of us are familiar with the saying from the Talmud that one should go immediately from Yom Kippur break-fast to build one’s Sukkah. This is really the meaning of Yasher Koach, which does not translate well—literally. Yasher Koach is like saying You should go from strength to strength. It’s not so much Good job! It’s more like That was great, keep doing more of that! Going straight from Yom Kippur to build a Sukkah is going from mitzvah to mitzvah, from strength to strength.

Hopefully, Yom Kippur was powerful, uplifting, and inspiring and hopefully you feel good about that; now another mitzvah is falling right into your lap: Sukkot. The truth is, most Jews are tuning out at this point. Many feel that the process of making teshuvah, and the closeness with G-d that they feel on the High Holidays ends at the final blasting of the Shofar and Havdalah at the end of Yom Kippur. The truth is the High Holidays are not over yet. Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are an integral part of them.

I’m a three-day-a-year-Jew, people say, but it’s not true. Not at the fundamental core of who they are. We were all born with the innate potential to be Mashiach, the innate potential to be holy, and to rise to higher and higher heights of holiness. That’s the whole point of Yom Kippur! You don’t have to be a three-day-a-year Jew. You can transform yourself.

If Yom Kippur is the great transformation, the great awakening, then Sukkot is the follow-through we need in order to sustain that awakening. It brings the high of Yom Kippur down to Earth so that we can leverage our inspiration to shift our lifestyle.

Come shake the Lulav and Etrog with us, come to the beer tasting at my Sukkah, come dance with the Torah. If Yom Kippur has lit a candle for your spirit, don’t let the candle go out, use it to light other candles, and increase the light in our world.

Shabbat Shalom,

 

September 15, 2018

 

When I was seven years old, a volunteer from an environmental organization came to my school and spoke about the environment and what we humans are doing to it. I was petrified. Having inherited my mother's propensity to worry about things I cannot control, I became frantically anxious about the environment. What would happen when I grew up? Would we have a world we could survive in? Would people and animals be mutated with hideous disfigurements? Would everything be toxic?

In the last couple of years, these fears have resurfaced as our impact on the global ecosystem becomes more clear. Extreme hurricanes, tornados, deadly heat waves and ice storms are the new normal. Every summer the smoke from the forest fires in Western Canada is so thick that even healthy people cannot go outdoors in BC, Alberta, Washington, Idaho, and Yukon. My fear for humanity’s ability to survive the next two hundred years has turned into something like despair. But more recently, in the past few months, we are seeing a glimmer of hope.

Due largely to media attention, there are now massive efforts underway to limit plastic consumption and to clean up the continent-sized masses of plastic waste that pollute our oceans. Last week, I was delighted to scroll through the news to find this article which explains how the Great Barrier Reef—which was pronounced dead at 25 million years old earlier this year—is showing signs of recovery. This may or may not be due to efforts by scientists to regrow the coral earlier last year.

 

Rebbe Nachman of Breslav teaches If you believe that you can break it, believe that you can fix it. If you stop smoking, your body eventually recovers. Likewise, if we stop destroying our ecosystem, we can—with the right science and technology, the right consciousness and sufficient willpower—heal our world. There are concrete actions we can all take to be a part of the solution, but the solution starts within each of us.

In this time of Teshuvah when we are open to positive change, let us take this news as a reminder that we have before us an opportunity to heal and to repair what we have broken.

Shabbat Shalom,

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September 8, 2018

 

We are standing now at the edge. There are now just a few days between us and the moment of truth, the moment when we will once again come together as adudat echad, a singular union and petition G-d to accept us once again and inscribe us in the Book of Life.

Even for those of us who are not particularly pious, there is a sense of trepidation around the High Holidays; they’re not called Days of Awe for nothing. Some feel a sense of anxiety, a need to get one’s affairs in order, a need to tie up loose ends and clear the air. There is fear. This is a totally normal response to moments like the Days of Awe, which remind us of our mortality and the gravity of our responsibilities.

This mindset can be a positive thing as it can stimulate the growth and soul-searching that are necessary in order for the High Holidays to have meaning. However, it needs to be balanced with the opposite mindset, joy, trust, and love. There is an old Rabbinic drash on the name Elul, the last month of the Hebrew year, the month in which there are now only a couple of days left. Elul in Hebrew is spelled אלול, and drash is that this is an acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי I am my beloved’s and my beloved’s is mine. This phrase comes from Shir HaShirim, written as a love song which the Rabbinic tradition understands as a song between G-d and the children of Israel. During Elul, we long for a closeness to G-d. When we can truly feel that closeness to G-d, it is a luminous feeling of being totally loved and supported  Fear and anxiety melt away of themselves in warmth of this light.

On Rosh Hashanah, we will come face to face with our Creator, who is often called King. The King is usually on the throne, up in the palace, surrounded by a wall, and moat with the gates closed, far away in the capital. Right now though, The King is in the field. We have rare close access to our Creator, the source of all life and energy in the Universe. The gates will swing open and we will be invited to the inner chamber. Bring with you only those desires which really matter; your health, your family, your relationships, and your soul. Let everything else, the emails, the bills, the social media, melt away. They will be there when you come out on the other side. For now, our only job is to get closer to G-d, and that means to get closer to ourselves, our true selves, our highest selves.

May 5779 be a year of blessing, health, wealth, and only good things.

Shanah Tovah,

 

September 1, 2018

 

In a short time we will gather for Slichot services, which we recite in the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah. Sephardi communities actually recite Slichot during the entire month of Elul. The Slichot  service is an amalgam of verses, prayers, psalms, and songs all with the central theme of forgiveness and atonement. It was already in existence during the Geonic period (500-800 CE) but communities continued to add components to the service throughout the Middle Ages to produce its present form.

One of the central elements of Slichot is the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (י"ג מדות ) which were first revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai as the formula through which G-d would forgive the Israelites after the worship of the Golden Calf. Another central element is the Vidui, the confession in which we list all of our sins in alphabetical order. Note here that both of these elements indicate that we are seeking forgiveness for ourselves not as individuals but as a community.

Rav Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) who served as the chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of British Palestine was a poet and mystic. He wrote that Slichot is recited not only on behalf of the Jewish people, but certainly for the entire human race. More than that, we recite Slichot on behalf of all beings everywhere in G-d’s universe. There is a long thread of Rabbinic thought which holds that it is not only the Jews who are judged on Rosh Hashanah, but all beings. In light of this, it stands to reason that Jewish communities should seek forgives for all beings, not just their own nation.

Our lives, our actions and their consequences are all interconnected, thus it is fitting that we have a universal means by which we can extricate ourselves from the negative actions we have accumulated. I hope you will find this an inspiring thought with which to enter Shabbat, and I do hope you will join us at Shabbat’s closing for an inspiring Slichot. Details can be found in this bulletin. 

 

Shabbat Shalom, 

August 25, 2018

 

During the month of Elul it is traditional to recite Psalm 27 at the end of each service. Doing so is part of our preparation for the approaching new year and high holidays. It begins,  G-d is my light and salvation.

Rosh Hashanah is, among other things, the birthday of the Universe, marking the anniversary of the Creation narrative, Bereshit. The first ‘thing’ created was light; not the physical light produced by sun and stars (they, after all, were only created on the fourth day) but a more ephemeral, subtle kind of light. It is the light of Bereshit from which all subsequent created things were formed, thus it is a kind of ‘building block’ of the Universe. Everything around you is composed of it. (As an aside, Einstein’s theory of relativity states that all matter is energy in a condensed form, and some scientists now believe that all matter may be composed of light). Thus, the Torah and science are not far off from one another.

On Rosh Hashanah, it is said that G-d’s light, radiates at a much higher magnitude. This actually begins in Elul, each day the light increases ever so slightly, and this first verse of Psalms is alluding to that. We can benefit from this light through our own introspection. In the Slichot prayers we read the line ה' מחפש כל חדרי בטן, G-d searches all the chambers of the gut. The ‘chambers of the gut’ i.e. the intestines were thought in ancient times to be the seat of emotion; morality was thought to resonate through the gut. The image of G-d conducting a room to room search is reminiscent of bedikat hametz the search for leaven crumbs on the night before Passover. This is really an invitation for us to search inside of ourselves to seek out the source of our own defilements and impurities. The cheshbon nefesh (spiritual accounting) of Elul should include the physical body as well as the mind. Did you know there are more nerves in your gut than in your brain? This adds new meaning to the expression ‘gut feeling’. You know something is true or false, right or wrong because you can ‘feel it in your kishkes’.

Elul is an opportunity to draw the light of G-d’s increased illuminating presence not only into your mind but into your body. This can be very healing on both a physical and emotional level. Take some time this month to open a holy book, a chumash, a siddur etc. whether you are able to read the Hebrew letters or not, gaze softly at the white spaces between letters and breathe deeply.

May the light of Elul bring you increased awareness
of yourself, healing and complete
Teshuvah.

Shabbat Shalom, 

August 18, 2018

 

Last Shabbat we had the privilege of hearing Raffi Fox speak about his trip to Israel. In his speech, Raffi briefly referenced the arrest of a Conservative Rabbi in Israel and how his Ramah group made effort to express solidarity with him. It occurred to me that some of you might not be aware of this incident, so I thought I should provide some background information as well as my personal thoughts on the matter. 

On July 19th, at 5:30am, police arrested Rabbi Dubi Haiyun at his home under recent provisions to Israel’s Laws of Marriage and Divorce, which stipulate that a Masorti (the equivalent of Conservative outside of North America) Rabbi may not officiate at Jewish weddings in Israel. Since his arrest there has been a storm of protest from the Conservative movement both inside and outside of Israel.

There have been numerous articles and perspectives written in the weeks that have followed. I have provided links to two opinion pieces from different sides of the issue:

https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-07-23/israelis-doubts-after-rabbi-detention-jewish-nation-state-law by Conservative Rabbi Daniel Gordis.

https://forward.com/opinion/407701/stop-trying-to-bring-conservative-and-reform-judaism-to-israel-we-already by Einat Wilf and Ram Vromen, of the Forward.
 

The Israeli Chief Rabbinate’s outsized influence on the government and control over civil affairs is once again being called into question. This is an important issue, the effects of which have a wider impact than just Jews of non-Orthodox streams. Women, the LGBT community and non-Jews living in Israel are all negatively affected by what is essentially an extremist-religious wing of the government.

It is vital that we support civil, secular, and pluralist organizations and institutions in Israel. Israel is slowly inching away from democracy and toward theocracy and these groups are on the front lines trying to stop that from happening. They are not having much success. This incident perhaps is in indicator that, in the words of Rabbi Haiyun after his arrest, Iran is already here.

While we, as non-Orthodox Jews, are a misunderstood and often mistreated specimen in Israel, it is important that we remain humble and not judge our fellow Jews, even as they judge us. Israel is, and always will be, first and foremost, a place of refuge for Jews who are persecuted minorities in their own countries. If they don’t accept my Rabbinic ordination, they will still accept me. I will continue to love Israel, despite her imperfections. We have to fight the forces of illiberalism and fundamentalism, but not with ego. Only by loving our fellow Jews can we ever hope to heal the sickness that is enveloping us as a people.

Shabbat Shalom, 

August 11, 2018

 


 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

 

 

August 4, 2018

 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught expansively on the quality of radical amazement, taking in the wonder that is existence itself. To be fascinated with existence, he said, is the primary religious emotion. I have always found great inspiration in learning of important scientific discoveries, especially those concerned with the nature of existence. In keeping with this concept of radical amazement, some of my weekly writings will feature scientific articles. 

A few weeks ago, scientists discovered the brightest object in the Universe, which turns out to be a Quasar orbiting a supermassive black hole. This object is a staggering 13 billion light years away. Bear in mind that the Universe itself is just under 14 billion years old. The light emitted by this object has reached us only now (which probably means the object isn’t there anymore) and has been traveling basically since the beginning of the Universe. Think about how bright that object would have to be in order to emit light for 13 billion years.

 

How does this relate to Torah? A light that has shone since the beginning of time –does that ring any bells? It is reminiscent, perhaps of the light of Bereshit (Genesis), when G-d said Let there be light. We know that this Quasar is not literally the light of Bereshit because the latter was not a physical light. Yet we can still draw some insight from it. The Torah is called a light. By Torah, I mean not just the physical five books of Moses, but the Primordial Torah, the consciousness from which G-d radiated the Universe into existence. Like this Quasar, the Torah is a light which, though rooted deep in the past can illuminate the present. When we allow Torah to enter our hearts and minds, we can transform ourselves the world around us. As bright as this Quasar is (or was) the light emanated by the Torah, though not visible to the naked eye, is indeed much brighter. The more we study and engage with Torah, the more we will expose the light of Torah which is in all things.

So may we all be blessed.
 

Shabbat Shalom,

To read the article, click here

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July 28, 2018

 

You may have seen a video this week of a 200 lb. rock falling from the Kotel in Jerusalem. By the looks of it the rock fell at least forty feet before hitting the platform which was set up at the foot of the bottom. Luckily, no one was standing on the platform and no injuries resulted. It was noted that this occurred in the egalitarian section of the Kotel, a much older layer of the plaza which actually dates to the first temple period.

A friend of mine (who is, for the record, egalitarian) mused that perhaps this was an ominous sign of what G-d thinks of egalitarian prayer spaces. One of my Rabbinic colleagues had a more poignant comment, "Sometimes I forget that this Wall is just a wall, it is subject to the laws of entropy like all other things." His comment reminds me of a story about the great Thai Buddhist master, Ajahn Cha:

One time Ajahn Cha was walking with some friends through a Buddhist temple in Cambodia when they passed by a statue of the Buddha with a large crack in it.

“Oh what a shame,” said one of his friends said, “it’s cracked.”

Ajahn Cha replied “That it is cracked shows that the Buddha’s teachings are true. It is the way of things that it must be cracked.”

Judaism also teaches that there is nothing permanent except G-d, all other things come and go. It is ironic that the Kotel has become such a phenomenon in modern times. True, it is the closest remnant that we have to our ancient and most holy site, and the historical significance of that must not be understated. For Jews who have never been to Israel, a visit to the Kotel can be very meaningful and impactful. That said, from a halakhic perspective the Kotel is no different than any other Shul.
G-d’s plan, according to Maimonides, was that we evolve away from the mode of worship practiced in the Temple and graduate to new forms. So the sentimentality attached to this place, over which we are now fighting so bitterly with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, is perhaps misplaced.

G-d destroyed the Temple because we ignored one another and worshipped idols. The time has come to stop making an idol of the Temple and start paying more attention to one another.

Shabbat Shalom,

July 21, 2018

 

On Saturday night we will mark Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, which is the

anniversary of the destruction of both the 1st and 2nd Temples. Av is a particularly inauspicious month for the Jewish people. Throughout medieval and modern history, the 9th of Av witnessed numerous massacres, crusades, expulsions, pogroms, and extermination. Tisha B’Av is commemorated through fasting (the only full 25 hour fast aside from Yom Kippur) and the reading of Megillat Eicha, the Book of Lamentations, which is a section of Jeremiah. In this part of the prophecy, Jeremiah bewails the ruthlessness with which G-d has abandoned His people and struggles to understand how we were deserving of such incredible brutality. When staring into the void of human suffering, we too find it enormously challenging to understand how

G-d can allow events like the Holocaust to occur. In the end, there are no good answers to this question. No words can justify it.

Entropy is a fact of the universe; things exist for a time, and then they do not exist. Sometimes this transition is sudden and violent and this is what makes us cry out Eicha! How can this happen?  And there are no answers. In the end, Jeremiah takes some comfort in knowing that there is hope for the future. Like the seeds that germinate and sprout in the ashes and heat of a forest fire, the Jewish culture and our faith find a way to blossom after every

destruction. On the personal level as well, we must find a way to live on and to live well.

In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche: to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in your suffering.

July 14, 2018

 

The final portion of the Bamidbar (Numbers), Parashat Massei begins with a thorough recounting of the entire forty year journey from Egypt through the Sinai desert into the Kingdom of Moab (modern day Jordan and Saudi Arabia) right up to their present position on the east bank of the Jordan River. The Israelites are then commanded on how to draw tribal territories and to designate cities of refuge. The Torah does not waste words, so why is it repeating the various legs of the journey? The answer is, you can’t know where you’re going until you know where you are, and you don’t know where you are unless you know where you’re coming from. During their forty years in the desert, the Israelites went through a lot as a people; there were numerous errors and failures on both personal and national levels. We cannot learn from our mistakes if we do not retain an awareness of our past actions.

Our present state, the state in which we find ourselves today, as individuals and as a collective, is a result of past actions. Some of those actions took place hours ago (the food we ate for example), other actions took place decades ago (our relatives migrating through and away from the Old World). Knowing this is critical in understanding who we are and where we’re heading. The parsha does not only gaze backwards; it looks to future actions as a means to redeem the mistakes of the past—each tribal territory would be appropriate to that tribe’s historical experience as well as their population. We cannot be stuck dwelling in the past; we must draw on our experiences and use them to determine the right way to move forward.

May we never be so caught up in the day-to-day that we forget our history, and may we never get so stuck in the past that we lose awareness of the ever-unfolding present moment.

 

Shabbat Shalom

   

 

 

July 7, 2018

 

Last week, our entire community was shocked and saddened by the sudden loss of Rabbi Chezi z”l. I was grateful to have had the opportunity to meet the rabbi and spend a bit of time with him over the past couple of months. I am disappointed that I won’t have the opportunity to learn more from and with Rabbi Chezi z”l, but grateful that so many of you have shared your warm memories and stories. I hope that you will continue to do so.


May his memory always be a blessing.

Mon, November 12 2018 4 Kislev 5779